Laura Coburn, 23 years old and thoroughly freaked out, sat staring at six grim mugshots. She was being asked by two jumpy cops if any of the photos resembled the man who two months earlier had raped and viciously beaten her A the man who would come to be called the Bird Road Rapist. Coburn remembers having a thought just then, in August of 1979, an absurd thought given the gravity of the situation. "I'd been raised on Dragnet," she recalls. "And I wanted to see more mugshots. I told them 'It doesn't look like anyone here. Can I see more photos?' And they said, 'Why don't you look a little closer at these.' I was thinking: Did I miss something?"
Coburn, now 37, claims she scanned the pictures again, then asked Metro-Dade officers Norman Shipes and Joe Daniels a second time if she could see more photos. They redirected her to the lineup in front of her. "Immediately, I knew something was up," she says. "Their suspect had to be one of the guys on my sheet." Of the six images only one bore any resemblance. Like her assailant, he had a small frame. When she pointed to the washed-out photo, "the officers' faces lit up," as she would later testify in court. They had their man.
Coburn's photo identification of Luis Diaz would prove to be the turning point in a two-year manhunt for the Bird Road Rapist. Diaz was arrested the day after her mugshot session, and eventually was accused of terrorizing some 30 women driving on or near Bird Road, from 1977 to 1979. In May 1980, the elfin fry cook would be tried and convicted of attacking eight women, including Coburn, and sentenced to thirteen life sentences. Currently housed in Orlando's Central Florida Reception Center, Diaz is eligible for parole in 2005.
But Coburn's account of coercion boosts the contention made by Diaz's family and his former defense attorney, Roy Black, that police arrested the wrong man. She is the second victim to proclaim publicly that Diaz was not the man who raped her, and Black says her stunning allegation of police impropriety could lead to a new trial.
"Anytime you talk about police misconduct, it casts an entirely new light on the case," notes Black, now a celebrated defense lawyer. "We're going to take a statement from her and look into this. Our next step is to file a petition with the circuit court requesting a new trial."
For state prosecutors, who are now reviewing the Diaz file for a third time, the new claim only thickens the pall of doubt surrounding a conviction they once felt was open-and-shut. Although the prosecution uncovered no physical evidence against Diaz, eight victims took the stand to indentify him during a tense weeklong trial. The jury spent less than three hours before returning a guilty verdict.
Diaz's advocates never accepted that finding. They maintain he is a simple-minded immigrant whose accusers were swayed by the hysteria that surrounded the infamous Bird Road Rapist probe. Twice they have lobbied the State Attorney's Office to review their investigation, and twice prosecutors have concluded the right man went to prison.
Coburn says recent furor over the case, including a December 9 New Times cover story, prompted her to come forward with her accusations. "I realized it was the right thing to do, to try to get this case reopened," she says. "That's what should happen, because if any of the other girls were influenced like me, this whole case is tainted."
Metro-Dade Police officer Norman Shipes disagrees. "We don't coerce anyone in any way. We don't push photographs on people. That's just not the way we do things. I have to sleep at night, you know."
Shipes admits he has no specific recollections of the Coburn lineup. "The Diaz case is a long time ago now," he says. "But I do remember this: we did all we could to allow this guy to prove his innocence. He was guilty. He was guilty then and he's guilty now."
Daniels, who left the Metro-Dade police department in 1986, concurs. "I don't want to knock Laura Coburn, because she was a victim. But what she's saying is just not true. We didn't want to arrest the wrong guy. We had plenty of tentative IDs of Diaz from women. But we only used those women who were positive. And she was."
Indeed, police records of Coburn's pivotal mugshot session state that Coburn "positively identified" Diaz and signed the back of his photo. Coburn now says that's nonsense. "I looked at Diaz and thought his hair was too bushy. So I blocked out the hair with my hands, just focused on the face, and it looked a little closer. The police told me if I could ID him, they could pick him up for questioning. I figured questioning him would settle it one way or the other. I guess they took my willingness to point to him as a positive ID. But I did not say, 'This is the man.' I said I'd like to see this one in person."
In fact, at a live lineup less than a week later, Coburn identified the wrong man. Only after viewing that lineup twice more on videotape did she finally choose Diaz.
At the time, her difficulty in identifying Diaz struck investigators as odd, since she had been forced to engage in sex acts with her rapist for nearly an hour and had provided police with a meticulous description of him and his car hours after the rape. Asked by a detective if she could describe him, Coburn had responded: "Oh yes. Five feet, ten inches tall, 160 to 165 pounds, medium complexion, short dark brown curly hair, very tightly curly, sideburns, neatly trimmed, with a Latin accent. Have I left anything out? Oh, he was about 30. Anywhere from 26 to 33."
Her profile A like most of the victims' A did not fit Diaz, who at the time of his arrest was a haggard 41 years of age, five feet, three inches tall, 130 pounds, with a jet-black pompadour and no sideburns.
At trial, however, Coburn proved to be a most influential witnesses. Attractive and articulate, she shook visibly on the stand but made a lasting impression on jurors and the judge as a brave victim who put aside her personal fears to seek justice.
Coburn, who at the time of her assault was a newscaster for WINZ-AM (940), says after her initial photo lineup she quickly became convinced that Diaz had indeed been the man who attacked her. "The police seemed so sure he was the guy, and you identify so much with the police," she explains. "They also told me another girl had picked him out. By the time of the [live] lineup, I had projected all my fears onto Diaz, so much so that I had a physical fear reaction when I saw him.
"We all had doubts," she adds. "What we didn't have was a chance to look at them."
Roy Black, haunted by the Diaz trial for years, says Coburn's sentiments reflect the inherent fallibility of eyewitness testimony. "It's innacurate specifically because eyewitnesses look for hints from police. Studies have shown how quickly they point to a suspect police have identified. There's a real psychological bond there," he observes.
But lead prosecutor Ken Drucker says he made sure all his witnesses had ample opportunity to evaluate their doubts. "Coburn told me categorically that this was the man who had raped her. And I was especially careful with her because she chose the wrong man in the live lineup."
Drucker, now an assistant county attorney, concedes he was not present during Coburn's photo lineup. But he points out that none of the witnesses has ever expressed concerns about police or prosecutor coercion. In fact, at least two of Coburn's fellow victims A Constance Jones and Caridad Corona A remain certain Diaz was their rapist. "He was the man," insists Corona, who still lives in Dade. "For these women to say different fourteen years later A that's crazy. He raped me."
Drucker suggests Coburn's sudden accusation may be the result of the recent media reports about the case, combined with pestering by Diaz advocates such as Delray Beach private investigator Virginia Snyder. "If you keep telling people they put the wrong guy behind bars, those doubts can get blown out of proportion," he argues.
That reasoning, Black counters, erodes the very foundation of Drucker's conviction. "Look at the logic: Now they're saying this woman is highly suggestible. If she's so suggestible, couldn't the cops have affected her testimony? And if she's so unreliable now, why was her testimony twelve years ago used to put a guy in prison for life?"
Coburn will appear in a three-part Univision (WLTV-TV Channel 23) report about the Bird Road Rapist case, beginning tonight, February 17, at 5:00 p.m. She says she's going public with her allegations now because the State Attorney's Office has neglected her concerns. "The prosecutors appear on TV and in the newspaper saying, 'We've reinvestigated this case.' But that's not true," she contends. "They never called me or the other witnesses. All they did was reread what they've already done."
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Coburn says she's left three messages in the past two months for David Waksman A Drucker's co-counsel who is an assistant state attorney A in hopes of discussing her misgivings. None of the calls has been returned.
Waksman says he hasn't received any messages from Coburn. He adds that State Attorney Janet Reno, nominated this past Thursday as U.S. Attorney General, has taken recent action on the Diaz case: she's ordered prosecutor Kevin DiGregory to review the entire file.
But does DiGregory plan to interview Coburn, or Donna Coppage, another victim who now believes she accused the wrong man? "I'm reviewing the file," DiGregory says flatly. "I have no other comment."
Like it or not, Black says, the State Attorney's Office may be forced to retry the entire Bird Road Rapist case, if Laura Coburn stands by her claims. That prospect leaves Caridad Corona shuddering. "I don't want to hear about that," she says shakily. "No more about that, please.